Being personable is a leadership strength, while being unapproachable, prickly or guarded shuts people up and shuts them down, cutting off information flow and collaboration vital for a team to do its best work.
Whether awkward, dictatorial or lacking responsiveness to the human side of things, managers who fall short of the relational graces tend to make their team and colleagues hesitant to come forward, sit down and have those much-needed conversations.
It's not uncommon to see remoteness as a choice made by a manager, as in, "distance is good," or "I don't want to be too warm and fuzzy."
It's something I seek and assess in my work as a coach. I begin almost every engagement interviewing my client's colleagues, looking not only at their ability to get the job done, but how they manage: do they foster an environment of candor and collaboration?
Consider, for example, the following feedback I've received over the years about various managers with approachability issues:
"She's cold and remote -- not sure what to make of her, and I've known her for years. I just do my job and hope for the best, even though I don't know where I stand."
"Forget the niceties, if you try to engage him as a person, it's not going to happen. People do their job, and that's it. No one's going above and beyond for him."
In our debrief, in each case, I learned the leader knew they weren't exactly "a people person," but didn't really worry about it, because "work is work," or, "I'm not here to win any popularity contests."
Why Personable Leaders Know More
Whether nuance, bad news, or something that might solve a manager's important problem, people bring things to an approachable leader that they would keep from a more awkward one, unless absolutely necessary (often too late to be actionable). The cost of ignorance can be high, and is avoidable with feedback and practice.
Face it: You Can Be Approachable
Check yourself. If you are frustrated with not getting important information on a timely basis from your people, it helps to suspect your own level of approachability. As this may be in your blind spot, ask those around you whom you trust if they think you might put people off more than you know. Give them extra permission to be frank with you about it.
If you discover you may have an approachability issue, here are a few suggestions to try and practice:
1. When you get ideas and suggestions from colleagues or your team, acknowledge them. Ten words or less, such as, "I appreciate the heads up," or, "Thank you, that update helped me," does a lot to encourage further information, whereas a ringing silence or lack of response telegraphs apathy, which tends to shut people down.
2. When you decide to ignore input or recommendations, certainly ones you solicited, take a moment to explain. Absent that, people will read their own story into your silence, which may be: s/he doesn't want my input, so I'm not going to provide it.
3. Over time, go a level deeper of getting to know your people by investing in some one-on-one time with them, outside of the context of immediate tasks or projects.
4. People want to know you. Don't hesitate to share a story or two about yourself that shows something about your character, as context and time permit.
5. It's good to know your colleagues. How much do you really know? Make sure to ask questions about others -- both work-related and on a human level. Show caring and concern about others when it's heartfelt.
6. Listen hard. Watch distractions, like doing other things while people are talking to you.
7. Consider making extra effort to be gentle with people who are easily intimidated, or less prone to go "toe to toe."
Personable and professional are not mutually exclusive -- rather, they are complementary. Pricklier leaders need to put in a bit more effort to ensure they are open to their people's ideas, and allow people to know them.
It's worth it, as a more relational management style allows for a collaborative, kind workplace prone to better outcomes than the alternative.
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